A Permission is not an Instruction

A permission is not an instruction to behave in a particular way; the law and the Golden Rule take precedence over religious permissions.

People cannot be allowed to assert ‘rights’ which breach the laws that apply to that territory.  The person concerned can easily resolve a conflict in some cases by recognising that religious permission to do something isn’t the same as an injunction to do it.  For example, Islamic texts give men permissions in the treatment of women that would be against the law in most Western countries – as described in a Time magazine article: The Women of Islam.  A man can stay within national law, though, by remaining monogamous, refraining from beating his wife, etc.  A religious permission is not an instruction to have two wives.

It can be argued that complying with the preferences of the majority should take precedence over some cultural customs, to avoid conflicting with the Golden Rule.  The very contentious practice of women wearing veils which completely cover their faces (burkas and niqabs) in Western societies can be taken as an example: the women concerned (and their families) don’t have to upset other people because their religion does not explicitly instruct them to wear that type of veil – as noted by Karen Armstrong, in her book Battle for God:

“The veiling of women is neither an original nor a fundamental practice in Islam.  The Koran [Quran] does not command all women to cover their heads, and the habit of veiling women and secluding them in harems did not become common in the Islamic world until some three generations after the Prophet’s death, when Muslims began to copy the Christians of Byzantium and Zoroastrians of Persia, who had long treated their women in this way.  But the veil was not worn by all women; it was a mark of status and worn by women of the upper classes, not by peasants.” [p.165]

This is an example where it is desirable to use the Moral Dimension of governance to increase social cohesion – by asking the minority to adapt its behaviour in this example.  Trying to use the law to compel women to stop wearing the burka, on the other hand, is problematic – as discussed later (



This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/4442a.htm